Rob Lax

Company and address

Sappi Technology Centre, PO Box 3252, Springs 1560, South Africa



chemicals, databases, environmental compliance, fire prevention, food wrap papers, hazardous materials, industrial hygiene, information systems, legislation, pollution prevention, safety, safety precautions, water pollution control


Since 1989 Sappi Technology Centre has been developing a database of the chemical products used at the mills. The information it contains is taken from the suppliers' material safety datasheets, and is used to produce a standardised emergency response datasheet which is available where the chemical is used. This paper describes the development of the database, and the changes which have occurred due to improved information technology and additional requirements. The present system, in addition to the risk control function, has been helpful in obtaining ISO 14000, as well as providing a valuable resource of data for product compliance to applicable legislation.


The Sappi Technology Centre, based at Enstra Mill in Springs, maintains a database of all the chemical products used within the Sappi group in Southern Africa. The development of this database began in 1989 and has been through many changes, due in part to the vast improvements in information technology over the years. This has allowed the database to expand from the initial focus on risk control to become an important resource on the chemicals used in the manufacture of pulp and paper. It now provides information for determining compliance with food packaging regulations and other customer requirements, as well as being a useful tool in the maintenance of the ISO 14000 system.


The Hazchem database, as it was named in 1989, was initiated due to an accident involving the inadvertent mixing of two incompatible chemicals at a mill. The resulting explosion luckily did not cause any injuries, but did result in severe damage to property. Investigations into the cause of the accident, as well as other incidents in the past, highlighted the need for a better understanding of the risks associated with the use of chemicals in the plant. At that time there was no ready-made software available, so the key information required for effective control was identified from an assessment of the safety standards both in South Africa and overseas.

The Technology Centre (at that time known as Research & Development) was tasked with the vetting of all process chemicals used at the mills (i.e. chemicals stored in quantities greater than 25 Kg on site), in order to better understand the risks involved in their use. The decision to centralise the control of chemical information was made so as to

  • maintain a set standard across the group
  • prevent duplication of information
  • allow for a concentration of reference material at one place
  • provide a second layer of checking in addition to the risk control at each mill.

For this purpose, it was decided to capture all the available information on a computer database. At that time, there was no readily available software dedicated to the control of chemical information on the market. It should be remembered that in 1989 there was no Windows yet, so all programs were running on DOS. An examination of the available database software on the market was conducted, and it was decided to purchase a program called Q&A from Symantec due to the ease of database design and use when compared to the more powerful programs such as DBase. It was also a lot cheaper.

The information from which the database was populated came from a number of sources. Firstly there was the material safety datasheet (MSDS) and technical notes provided from the suppliers. In addition to this, a number of reference books and software packages were purchased to provide additional information, the most important of these being the famous "Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials" by Sax. These additional resources were often required since the standard of the MSDS from suppliers varied from excellent to the ridiculous, and occasionally to the non-existent.

It should be remembered that back in 1989 there was not a standard format for the MSDS. Although ISO guidelines were later introduced for the required information and the order in which it should be presented (SABS ISO 11014-1:1994), many suppliers had already developed their own formats for the MSDS. For this reason, it was decided to use the database to issue a standard sheet containing the vital information required for use of the chemical, including known hazards, chemical incompatibilities, first aid responses, fire fighting and spill procedures, etc. This emergency response sheet, named the Hazchem Datasheet, contained all the information needed in an emergency situation, in a format which did not vary from supplier to supplier. This allowed for improved training for the personnel at the mills.

The system for approval of chemicals for use at a mill was adapted at that time to the following.

    1. Process engineers submit request for a new chemical to risk control at the mill.

    2. All available information passed to the Technology Centre for vetting.

    3. Technology Centre examines available information, and if necessary obtains additional information from the supplier or other sources.

    4. If approved, a Hazchem Datasheet is issued and returned to the mill.

    5. If not approved, the reason is communicated to mill.

    6. Mill risk control decides whether to introduce chemical to the mill, based on the Hazchem Datasheet and other considerations.

    7. MSDS filed at key locations, and Hazchem Datasheet made available at place of use.

The term "risk control" as given above would normally involve approval from a number of sections at the mill, including the medical centre, water treatment, environmental, and the technical personnel at the section where the chemical is to be used.

It must be remembered that the Hazchem Datasheet was never intended to replace the original MSDS from the supplier, and in fact it cannot legally do so since the MSDS must be available on site. However, it was decided to store the MSDS's only at key locations throughout the mills such as the medical centre, and to use the Hazchem Datasheet for information on the proper response to an emergency situation at the point of use.


Since 1989 the scope of the database has extended beyond the initial aim of providing information on emergency response. Much of this has been due to the advances in areas such as computer networking, although this has not been without its problems over the years.

In 1993 the database was moved from a DOS platform onto Windows 3.1 using a windows version of Q&A. This allowed for an improved version of the printed datasheet which could contain more information due to better control on layout and font sizes.

In 1994 an attempt was made to move the database from a stand alone computer onto the central computer at Sappi head office. This was running on terminals to which each mill was connected, and the idea behind this was to allow each mill to enter and retrieve chemical information from the centralised database, with the technology centre providing an administrators role whilst continuing to vet all data entered on the database. This did not prove to be successful, mainly due to problems with the highly structured format of data required by the central computer, and the inability of the system to provide a suitable printed form of the datasheet. In hindsight this was a blessing in disguise, since the coming of Windows 95 allowed for far more flexibility than could be achieved on that system.

In 1996, with the decision of Sappi to standardise on the Microsoft Office suite of programs, it was decided to move the database across from Q&A to Access (the Microsoft database platform). Q&A by this time was no longer being updated by the Symantec, and a Windows 95 version was not available. The new software allowed for the inclusion of pictures on the datasheet, and this was used to include the standard pictograms indicating hazards and required protective equipment. Due to the added pictograms, it was necessary to expand the datasheet from one to two pages, with the first page containing the emergency information and the second page containing additional information which would be of lesser importance in an emergency situation.

At this time a number of programs became available on the market which were designed to do a similar function to what Sappi had already developed. These packages were very well designed, but were aimed at companies looking to produce MSDS's for their own products to give to customers. The costs were also very high considering that Sappi required only a small percentage of the available functions to meet the needs of the Hazchem system. For this reason it was decided to remain with the Access database.

In 1999 a further attempt was made to place the database on a central server. This time it was to be accessed via the Sappi intranet, using web pages to interact with the database. Although the system was installed, it was discontinued after a few months due to stability problems with the software, and problems with the display and printing of the datasheets. Most of these problems were due to limitations in the programming language for web pages at that time, as well as interruptions in the availability of the server due to a virus problem.

Although the intranet based system had to be abandoned, it was found that the people at the mills found it useful to be able to search the database for any information they required. At the same time, the move towards the attainment of ISO 14000 at the mills was placing a load on the technology centre regarding typing all the information into the database. This was due to the inclusion of a large number of chemical products previously not included in the database.

The system was modified in 2001 to include the distribution of the database to the mills via the public folder system which is part of the Microsoft Outlook email system. Any information stored in a public folder is duplicated on the mail server computers at each mill once a day. Thus any loss of communication between the mill and the rest of the Sappi intranet does not affect the availability of the information within the mill. The public folder system was initially used in 2000, to distribute the datasheets to the mills in the pdf format which is read by Adobe Acrobat. The pdf files are difficult to alter, and this added an extra layer of security against unauthorised changes.

The ability to distribute a master copy of the database has allowed for each mill to maintain a copy of their own information. Presently information is entered into their own database by the mill personnel, and any new or changed data is emailed to the technology centre for vetting. Once included into the master copy of the database, a updated copy of the database is placed in the public folder system which can then be downloaded by each mill to replace their (now out of date) own copy. In addition, modifications to the database structure have allowed for datasheets specific to each mill to be created. This allows for such information as the local representative, storage amounts and locations, and application areas to be included on the datasheet.

A recent development has been the separation of the chemicals used by Sappi Forests into a new database. This was done due to the specialised chemicals used in agriculture, and the different legislation and labeling required by that sector. In addition, it was decided that the technology centre did not have sufficient knowledge to advise on the use of agricultural chemicals. This database is now being administered by Sappi Forests on their own, although the information it contains is still available across the Sappi intranet.

Throughout the development of the system, the available information in the database has been expanded to include changes in legislation regarding occupational safety. Back in 1989 the standard indicator of risk was the Hazchem code as developed in the UK. This code which is displayed on trucks is still in use today, but is being gradually dropped to leave just the UN number of the chemical. This is in accordance with SABS 0232-1 of 2000. The UN number relates to an ERG code in the Emergency Response Guidebook (SABS 0232-3 Annex A). These developments have been incorporated into the datasheet used by Sappi. The inclusion of HMIS (Hazardous Material Information System) codes, which have recently become common on the MSDS, together with an ecological risk code (defined in house by Sappi), are further examples of how the system has been improved.

The available information on each chemical has also been increased over the years, since it became apparent that the database would be a useful resource for all matters relating to chemical usage in the manufacture of pulp and paper. Additional fields have been included to record ecological toxicity and approval for food packaging usage. The ecological data was initially required by Ngodwana mill, due to the increased risks from spills into the environment given their location, but has subsequently been of great value to the whole group in the application of ISO 14000.  The food packaging information has allowed for prompt reporting of the suitability of paper products for food contact applications, and has reduced the number of chemical tests required before approval can be given. In addition, sales related queries from overseas regarding the presence of certain undesirable chemicals in the final product (or their use during manufacture) can be quickly answered.


The future development of the Hazchem database will be based largely on the continued improvement in information technology, and the introduction of new software. Improvements in the Sappi network will allow for a return to a centralised database, running on an improved database software platform. This would allow for interaction by the SAP system. Alternatively the information could be included in the developing document and information management system. In either case, the move would be to return much of the administration and vetting process back to the individual mills, since in the internet age the availability of information is much greater, and less centralised, than it was back in 1989. The quality of the MSDS's from all suppliers has also vastly improved, so that today it is very rare to have to request or obtain additional information. In addition to this, the labeling on many of the bulk containers has also been standardised, with good emergency response information now displayed on the chemical tank by the supplier. Finally it must be said that the systems used by Sappi mills to control chemical use have been developed to such a high standard that the original policing role of the technology centre is no longer required, and should be changed to an advisory service as required.


The original purpose of the Hazchem database was to help prevent accidents involving chemicals. Over 12 years it has grown to incorporate additional information on the chemicals used within the manufacturing process. In its present form it provides a valuable information resource for the Sappi group for safety issues and for maintaining ISO 14000. It also helps to provide marketing with prompt and accurate information regarding how the manufacture of Sappi products complies with both the environmental and end use requirements of our customers, both locally and abroad. Given the trend towards "green" products, the value of this database can only increase.  

Figure 1 : Example of a Hazchem Datasheet. For a larger image, click here


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